Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Response: What should we do with our Derrida?

In this response post, I’d like to address two points: first, the relationship of Malabou’s work to Derrida’s, and second, a potential theological connection with the notion of plasticity. I hope that I can be forgiven for being self-referential in the first part and that it will serve something like the purpose that leads Malabou herself to be autobiographical in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing.


My engagement with philosophy has been dominated by two thinkers: Derrida and Zizek. I came to Derrida first, in a Christian atmosphere that strongly emphasized the “transcendent” and quasi-religious element in his thought — the absolute alterity of the Other, the resistence of the “trace” to being taken up into any determinate form, etc. When I began to study Zizek’s work, I found that he gave voice to a lot of my own skepticism about what one might call the “postmodern pieties” that surrounded Derrida’s work in my own setting (and, as it turns out, elsewhere as well).

I found Zizek’s own critiques of Derrida to be rather simplistic and unfair, seemingly motivated more by a young intellectual’s desire to clear out his own space than by an even-handed assessment of Derrida’s philosophy, but I sensed an overall challenge to Derrida that rang true: in essense, I took him to be asking, What can we do with Derrida? From a certain perspective, Derrida’s project seems to be entirely negative, characterized by extreme caution over words and by a need to express one’s own position only indirectly by means of a strange kind of commentary — but what positive task corresponds to this critical moment?

When I began to study the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, I thought I may have found my answer, particularly in The Experience of Freedom and Being Singular Plural. In fact, I have strongly considered writing a book to that effect, claiming precisely that Nancy is the “positive” version of Derrida, even going so far as to describe that as my “research agenda” for purposes of applying to various fellowships. I’m becoming increasingly convinced, however, that my focus on Nancy has been one-sided and that any such project would have to include Malabou as well — though I still find Nancy’s concept of being-with and his daring analysis of freedom to be hugely productive, neither has the power and elegance of plasticity.


Of course, that very elegance reduces the need for exposition, and Malabou is obviously a young thinker who has plenty of time to develop the concept of plasticity (or develop beyond it) herself. Perhaps better than producing any kind of commentary on plasticity would be to set it loose within theological discourse, furthering a goal I share with Clayton, namely, the development of a materialist theology.

I believe that a commentary on Augustine’s Confessions centered on the concept of plasticity would be enormously productive. In terms of the formation of Augustine as a plastic subject, the connections may be obvious — perhaps less obvious would be Augustine’s interpretation of the terms “heaven and earth” (from Genesis 1:1) in Book XII. Though he believes that people are not incorrect when they assume it summarizes the entire act of creation, he thinks there is a deeper meaning that renders the terms “heaven and earth” non-redundant.

On the one hand, he suggests that “heaven” actually refers to the “heaven of heavens,” the eternal abode of spiritual beings who live in uninterrupted fellowship with God. Though created, the “heaven of heavens” participates in God’s eternal nature by its unchangingness (aside from the change of having come into existence out of nothing in the first place). In terms of plasticity, we might say that the “heaven of heavens” is pure form.

On the other hand, he claims that the “earth” refers not to any particular entity, but rather to a kind of “formless matter” that serves as the logical presupposition of God’s creation of the rest of the world. It comes into existence at God’s command, as the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo requires, but it nonetheless serves as a kind of raw material — God doesn’t need pre-existing matter to create the world, but he does need to create changeability itself. In terms of plasticity, this would obviously be pure receptivity to form.

Where should we look for the explosive element of plasticity? One possibility is the concept of evil, which gives Augustine such trouble throughout his intellectual journey. In contrast to formless matter, evil is pure negativity — in the proper sense, evil doesn’t “exist” at all. It is incapable of completely destroying God’s creation, but it can distort or change it. If we view evil as a constituent part of plastic existence, then the considerable body of literature investigating the concept of evil in the Christian tradition could become available in a new way, in the sense of being productive of thought.

I wonder, though, if we could take the risk of identifying God with the explosive element — a kind of originary explosion that simultaneously produces matter as passively receptive to form and keeps any form, even the quasi-eternal “heaven of heavens,” from being truly eternal and unchanging (since the “heaven of heavens” has, after all, undergone the greatest change of all: that from non-existence to existence). Instead of thinking God as purely transcendent to the world, as the pure negation of the world insofar as God is everything the world is not, we might then dare to fold God over onto evil as the negativity within this world, of which we can no longer conceive any “outside.”

(I have developed this reading of Augustine differently in a forthcoming article in a special issue of La revue internationale de philosophie on Zizek, where I combine it with a reading of Pseudo-Dionysius.)

11 thoughts on “Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Response: What should we do with our Derrida?

  1. Adam, I think this is a great question, and a great project with Augustine. I don’t have the historical tools to do this kind of reading, but I think it’s important and wonderful to do.

    Keep in mind that God is a lobster, and Malabou’s discussion of masks, which you summarized, reminds me of what Deleuze and Guattari say about double articulation in A Thousand Plateaus. So (destructive) plasticity would be the joint or hinge that conjoins/disjoins the two halves.

    I’m impatient with people who are impatient to get rid of Derrida. I see Derrida elaborating upon a materiality of language, where as he says to Kearney, he’s always concerned with the other in and of language. In terms of religion/theology, Taylor becomes the privileged interpreter or lens through which to read ‘early’ Derrida, and Caputo the corrective lens through which to read the later Derrida. The problem is then there’s this split, which seems problematic to me, between a more “nihilistic” and a more “faithful” Derrida.

    The other problem is that along with the political, ethical and religious ‘turns’ of Derrida usually located with “Force of Law,” Derrida gets increasingly absorbed into a kind a Christianized Levinasianism. Now I’m not qualified to say whether this representation of Levinas is right or not, but I do have my suspicions. But it’s too easy to blame Derrida, and let me make this clear, it’s also too easy and cheap to blame Caputo for this, even though he pioneers the more religious reading of Derrida.

    As both Derrida and Caputo make clear, deconstruction is about affirmation, it is an affirmative rather than a negative discourse. This is still largely misunderstood. Differance is what makes possible this affirmation, because it is a kind of dynamic spacing of language. So what do we do with Derrida? I think we continue to read him, especially his entire work rather than just ‘early’ or ‘late.’ Also, for me it means reading Zizek, Deleuze and Malabou, as well as Nancy (and Badiou and others). But I don’t read them antagonistically. I love Zizek, but he cannot take seriously anyone or anything without getting into a fight, ultimately it’s about conflict, and this goes back to his reading of the “rotary motion of the drives” in Schelling. So I thought it was great when I read that he was writing to Derrida from Slovenia, and Derrida was sending him copies of his books.

    I think Malabou’s notion of plasticity provides a perspective from which to appreciate rather than criticize or reject Derrida. Part of it is this flow of knowledge and time, where we have to get distance from a thinker in order to come to terms with an evaluation, but that’s also too simple and linear, but it seems inevitable that a reaction sets in after any revolution. So what do you do about the reaction to/of Derrida, insofar as it’s reactionary? My strategy is to hold onto Derrida, and preserve the revolutionary nature of his thinking, even as it has to be inscribed into different contexts.

  2. The whole relationship between Augustine and plasticity is fascinating. I think Crockett is right that deconstruction does have an affirmative gesture at its heart. However, I’m skeptical about where we move on from here with Derrida. Although there’s certainly an expectant welcoming of the Other that deconstruction celebrates (in spirit), we cannot simply repeat Derrida’s strategy of inhabiting philosophical texts. I think that’s where deconstruction seems almost entirely negative.

    Although, I understand the importance of reading Derrida with other continental thinkers, it is difficult to integrate Derrida with the likes of Deleuze, Badiou, and Zizek. The latest trend in continental thought seems to be to dismiss the cautious stance of deconstruction and return to ontology and truth. I don’t think it’s that simple to merely return to ontology without absorbing many of the insights of the linguistic turn in philosophy. I’m sure much of this desire to reject Derrida is spawned by fear of influence, and perhaps Malabou’s work is our most useful bridge between deconstruction and ontology.

    I think the positioning of the early and later Derrida is strange. It’s always such a polarized issue. Either he’s a nihilist (Taylor) or he’s Saint Jacques (Caputo). While I appreciate much of Caputo’s work, I remain wary. Recently, I read Deeportere’s book Badiou and Theology. He criticizes Caputo for not recognizing that Christianity has to hold in tension the already and not-yet of the Kingdom. Caputo completely ignores the already of the resurrection (which I suspect he rejects anyway), and Deeportere worries that this endless deferral of passion and desire for the absolute new event is actually “the movement of the consumer in capitalism which consumes ever new commodities which commodities which are never it, never the real thing. In this way, deconstructionist religious thought runs the risk of becoming the accomplice of global capitalism” (Badiou and Theology, 4).

  3. Jeremy, I think the question of capitalism is absolutely fundamental, which is one reason why I think Zizek and Badiou are important. But I think that one can always ask suspicious questions about how any philosophy conforms to as opposed to resists global capitalism, including Deleuze (Capitalism and Schizophrenia) and Zizek (whose paradoxical pronouncements about postmodern faith are sustained by a kind of capitalist apparatus, at least a lot of our interest in them is). There is no outside, although Badiou perhaps gets closest.

    I think the “to-come” is an ‘already’ already, even though it’s usually read into the future, but it’s a fine line. It depends what you mean by resurrection too. My favorite chapter of Weakness of God is the one on Lazarus, and there are affinities between Badiou and Caputo on resurrection. I just wrote a paper on this.

    I also read Derrida and Deleuze as complementary in many respects, as two sides of the same coin even though they use different language. This was almost impossible in english-speaking contexts in the 80s and 90s, but more and more people are seeing the connections. I really liked Derrida’s essay about Deleuze in Works of Mourning, “Now I will have to wander all alone.” I think it’s very interesting that even though Derrida loosened Caputo’s tongue, when he starts writing theology, it’s studded with Deleuzian insights and concepts, mainly from the Logic of Sense.

    Deleuze teaches me to read “and…and…and” rather than “either/or.” He says in Cinema 2 that “the question is no longer that of the association or attraction of images. What counts is on the contrary the interstice between two images: a spacing which means that each image is plucked from the void and falls back into it” (p.179). How to create or produce a creative interstice to link Derrida to Deleuze, or Badiou, or Zizek, or Agamben, or Negri, etc. The interstice between 2 images is also one way to read or think plasticity.

    So I only think Derrida is a dead-end if you buy the caricature/representations, which arrests productive becoming (differance) with his thought. Ontology is making a huge come-back, and I think that’s significant, but at the same time the linguistic reductionism that’s applied to Derrida is naive in the extreme. For me right now, Malabou and Deleuze (as well as aspects of Zizek) are incredibly significant in terms of elaborating an ontology or quasi-ontology over against Badiou’s, which I respect and admire but do not agree with, I think it’s too austere and platonic. I’m interested in this whole speculative realism stuff, but again in some respects it seems terribly naive, and the work being done in physics and cosmology (dark energy for instance) is really really fascinating and deeply relevant to Continental philosophy.

  4. I also should have mentioned that I think the biggest cheap shot one can take in continental circles is accusing someone’s philosophy as encouraging global capitalism. Zizek takes shots at Negri and Hardt in his latest book with some similar accusations. However, I do think Caputo’s neglect of politics and economics weakens the legtimacy of his call for any sort of political democracy to come. Zizek also beat up on him for claiming that capitalism can function without all of the horrible excesses as well. I think that’s why I liked Malabou’s book on the brain so much. The way she compared to the organization of the business world with the organization of the brain was really interesting. I hope they’ll translate her book on Freud and trauma soon, that works sounds especially fascinating.

    You know I’d have to go back and read the chapter in Weakness of God to reassess Caputo’s views on resurrection. I’ve read most of his work, and I get the sense that Crossan’s work on the historical Jesus has greatly influenced Caputo’s weak theology. Crossan argues in his books that it was likely that Jesus was devoured by wild dogs after the crucifixion so I assumed Caputo stayed at the cross. But, this is not something I want to get in a debate about as it raises way too many questions about the resurrection (literal vs metaphorical, etc.).

    Some of the problems I’m having in seeing the connections between Deleuze and Derrida is Deleuze’s rejection of Sausserian linguistics. I need to look more into this. De Landa, a Deleuzian scholar, said that given that many continental thinkers (Derrida, Lacan, etc) predicate so much of their theory on a certain conception of linguistics, it’s important to ask whether this is how language truly functions.

    One other thing that I wanted to mention was deconstruction being the whipping boy of some modern continental theorists. I think this partially is a response to what I would consider the hyper-moralization of Levinasian and Derridean scholars. I feel as if they exaggerated the evils of metaphysical thinking so much that it merited a backlash. I think Adam’s touched on the relationship between ethics and ontology before as well.

  5. I get a sense that the newer turn to materialism is what makes people somewhat critical of Derrida who, to be sure, seems quite removed from any materialism, old or new. The new materialism in the hands of some thinkers has connected with incarnational discourse, so that one way to talk about the turn away from Derrida to materialism is to say that it turns away from Word towards Flesh. Derrida deconstructed the Johannine prologue by showing that “in the beginning was the written trace of the word,” thus leaving Flesh as even further removed any originary integrity: the Flesh is the shadow of a trace. I have a sense that the new materialism seeks to recover the substance of the flesh, even if it is plastic. Or, another way to put this is to say that Derrida gave us the always already circumcised flesh, and what Zizek et al. want is the fleshly remainder of that circumcision. I think it is pretty clear where I’m headed: we are seeing a reaction against a “too Jewish” idealism (we saw this linkage two centuries ago with the criticism of Fichtean idealism as Judaic abstraction in Jacobi’s 1799 Letter to Fichte). I say this not to raise a cry of anti-Judaism against the turn to materialism (it would be no more accurate than to tar it as a cover for the ruse of global capitalism). The turn to the new materialism only runs into problems, I think, if in its search for the fleshly remainder it identifies that remainder too much with “bare life,” that is, the entirely kenotic flesh of the victim of violence. This kenotic flesh can rise up again only by a radical break with the legal order in whose name the violence was perpetrated. I think that herein lies the problem: the antinomian thrust of some of this new materialism. What Derrida continued to insist upon is the inescapability of the law, though perhaps a cosmopolitan law that remains “to come.” I might also mention the work of the philosopher Gillian Rose whose notion of “broken middle” attends to the ineluctable in-betweenness of human social and political existence, stretched between two lawless points: the violence of foundation and the stasis of utopian redemption, what she speaks about as two Cities of Death. I hear resonances between Malabou and Rose, and I think that Malabou offers a path beyond the dichotomy of kenotic flesh (bare life) and resurrected sovereign, a path, in other words, that might offer hope for a politics of the temporality of the broken middle.

  6. Jeremy, Caputo discusses the narrative about the bringing back to life of Lazarus. But it’s clearly relevant also to any consideration of the resurrection of Jesus.

    Bruce, thanks for your fascinating and provocative comments, and especially for the connection between Rose and Malabou. On the one hand, there is this return of structure, usually in the name of ontology, and I could also view that as a renewed attempt to engage with law, even if it’s a law beyond law, and here I read Badiou as close to Derrida, rather than opposed to him. So the issue of the flesh, while also part of this, could be located more in the Christian appropriation of Derrida and Levinas, as well as in Agamben. Certainly I don’t see Badiou as interested in the flesh as such, although I do see what you mean by the post-Lacanian fleshly remainder with Zizek, but that’s only given in and through the law.

    So this return to Paul is a kind of christian supercessionism and anti-Judaism, but it is usually be way of Benjamin and/or Santner, so it is at the same time an effort to assert the Judaic nature of Paul and/or Jesus. One question would be to ask whether there is a real difference between Jewish and Christian messianism or not.

    My contention is that part of what the postmodern return of the religious means is that capitalism is breaking down, along with the project of secularism that would relegate religion to a private realm (which was never successful in any case). So then there’s this devolution to religion AND a consolidation of the Judeo-Christianity of the West over against the Asian and Muslim Other(s), even if this Western heart is ultimately and intrinsically a Christian heart, which is where the Incarnation comes in. So part of my intention with my foreward to Malabou’s book was to use her thought to question this logic.

  7. Clayton: Rose, I think, is useful in reminding us that the privatization of religion is part of the development of Roman law based on persons and things into the law of bourgeois property and the separation of civil society and state. The Roman legal categories of person vs. thing and the contract as the mediation of both is, she argues, not easily mapped on to the Judaic category of divine law mediated through covenant. What “the return of the religious” means is a contest between two legal orders: contract between equal persons and covenant between the God and a people. Paul can be recuperated by postmodern thinkers wanting to authorize the assault on contract legalism and the property relations it legitimizes, but Paul is offering in place of Roman legalism the fulfillment of Judaic covenant legalism, a fulfillment in which peoplehood as such disappears and each individual is inscribed within the post-ethnic (neither gentile nor Jew) unitary body of Christ. The new flesh avoids the an-archic condition of mere flesh by virtue of its head. I fear that the recuperation of Paul by both Jewish and Christian postmodern thought may be tempted to decapitate the fleshly body in an effort to escape the apparent conjunction of Christ as head/LORD with the master signifier (big Other) of the symbolic order of bourgeois Roman legality. Hence, the anarchic flesh (= fleshly remainder outside the law of the covenant) is posited as the final fulfillment of Judaic law in the era of the death of God and the overturning of the bourgeois law of persons and things. But what if anarchic flesh only leaves itself vulnerable to anyone offering to speak for it (replace its missing head)? I am certainly not arguing in favor of orthodox law (a la Leo Strauss) or in favor of a neo-liberal rule of the law of the market. I am interested in thinking how the political body can avoid the extremes of anarchic flesh and dictating sovereignty. I guess it might require some marriage of contract and covenant, or maybe a way of thinking marriage itself as both (as Kant has it) a right of use in the body of another person and (as Cavell has it) an acknowledgment of the inviolable limit of that right. If marriage is a metaphor for the political body, the tension between right and acknowledgment of its inviolable limit is never finally able to be overcome: the political body can become neither one lawless flesh nor a corporation for production and consumption, but a constant oscillation between the two poles, as every union (marital and political) always generates new and incalculable singularities.

  8. That’s very interesting–i need to read Rose on this. I guess I’m less worried about the headless flesh, partly because I don’t view the dichotomy quite so starkly, but I can see where it’s relevant to discussions of biopolitics. It reminds me of Merleau-Ponty, though, both his emphasis upon the flesh as well as Derrida’s critique of him due to his presumption of an upright human body to maintain it.

  9. Check out one of the great books of philosophy from the last century: Pursuits of Remarriage: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Harvard, 1981). Be prepared to discover that Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is a riff on the division between noumenal and phenomenal selfhood. Elsewhere (Themes Out of School) Cavell offers a reading of North by Northwest that reads it as a political allegory of the perils of the democratic social contract. As I now look at the essay to check the accuracy of my memory of where it is, I notice that the theme of severed heads turned to memorial stone is prominent in the essay, and is used as way to register the danger of our refusal to recognize one another as flesh and blood. I would hope that we not forget that the brain is both plastic and tissue, encased and exposed, and that no materialism can reverse the stare of the Medusa once and for all; we still need the gifts of Athena, the goddess of the dusk as Hegel reminds us.

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